One of LACMA's curatorial innovations is the faithful-as-practical reconstruction of an art exhibition from the past. "Degenerate Art," presented in 1991 (and by the Nazis in 1937) remains the touchstone of the genre. LACMA's latest effort is a reprise of the 1975 "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape" presented in Rochester (George Eastman House), Los Angeles (Otis Art Institute), and Princeton (University Art Gallery). The present exhibit has about 60 percent of the photos in the original. Though the title became a meme, the 1975 show was a bust. Few attended; most of those who did hated it; even the catalog was thinner than a Great Recession Vanity Fair. The show nonetheless boosted the reputations of Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz (above, South Corner, Riccar America Company, 3184 Pullman, Costa Mesa), the Bechers, Joe Deal, and Stephen Shore. They were the Ash Can school of landscape photography, lensing whatever was man-made and banal: subdivisions, industrial parks, trailer parks, intersections, motels, parking lots.
As a movement, the New Topographers have been more respected than loved. ("If I sign your petition can I look at something else?") The revelation of this exhibition is how much things have changed. OK, it's not exactly the feel-good show of this holiday season, but neither is it medicinal.
These artists were reacting against the Ansel Adams mode of landscapes. Yet as recently as the mid 1970s, that still entailed making meticulously exposed 8x10 B&W prints. (Only Shore's photos are in color.) Houses and cars and signs have changed enough to introduce unexpected notes of nostalgia. It's easier to read irony into the pictures, intended or not. Have the images lost their edge, or simply become part of art history?The outliers here are John Schott and the unpigeonhole-able Bernd and Hilla Becher. Schott's photos of roadside America (above) stick out like a Doisneau in a Kertész exhibition. The Bechers' grids of ramshackle American coal-mining structures (below) are a world removed from the Teutonic water towers. The water towers are found Brancusis; the American contraptions are a train wreck.LACMA supplements the installation with the honorary 11th New Topographer, Ed Ruscha. His photographic books, like 1966's Every Building on the Sunset Strip, were influential to this generation of photographers. Shown in vitrines, the Ruscha books and other influences don't interfere with the act of historical recreation. There are also two videos by the would-have-been 12th New Topographer, Culver City's Center for Land Use Interpretation (not in the 1975 exhibition because it didn't exist).
"New Topographics" occupies most of the second floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. The white-cube installation fits the material, and there's not a trace of the bad lighting afflicting former second-floor installations.
In a show of downplayed ironies, the greatest may be the fact that Eli Broad prospered selling the suburban sprawl here critiqued. KB Home, founded as Kaufman and Broad in 1957, would have been hitting its subdivision-extruding stride in 1975. Though the firm now promotes carbon-footprint-minimizing building practices, the New Topographers aren't its only critics.